At only 28 years old and with nothing but an upset primary win in a New York City congressional district on her résumé, being anointed the “future of the Democratic Party” was quite a burden to place on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Since beating Rep. Joe Crowley — a veteran incumbent, as well as the boss of New York’s Queens County’s Democratic Party — on June 26, Ocasio-Cortez has become something of a political rock star, according to Democratic National Chairman Tom Perez, who gave her that title.
Perez might be right. But if so, there are two things about Ocasio-Cortez that are of greater interest than the fact that she embodies the Democrats’ hopes of generating a massive turnout of young voters this fall for midterm elections. One is that she ran as a “Democratic Socialist,” rather than a garden-variety Democrat. The other is that she’s already on record libeling the State of Israel, and has struggled to give a coherent explanation for those views.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders proved during his surprisingly effective 2016 presidential campaign that “socialist” was no longer a dirty word for American liberals. For those who have grown up in the three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reality of that term is as remote as the collapse of the Roman Empire. For many young voters, socialism is a catchall phrase embodying their resentment of a rapidly changing global economy, and a claim of wanting to make the world a better and more equitable place.
In a Democratic Party drifting to the left, with figures like Sanders and now Ocasio-Cortez appealing to its liberal base, the stigma that had rightly attached itself to socialism has faded.
Socialism has always been in fashion in pockets of academia, but it was widely accepted in the early 20th century as societies struggled to adjust to a modern industrial economy. Given the oppression they faced in Europe, Jews were vulnerable to the notion of a new world in which equality reigned and discrimination was eliminated.
Some forms of socialism — such as Labor Zionism and even Bundists, who hoped to find freedom for Jews in a socialist Europe — were relatively benign. But the strain that gained power in much of the world soon illustrated not only its basic economic fallacy (something that was also true in Israel, until it discarded the socialism of its founders), but also what happens when power is concentrated in the hands of a small group that thinks it knows how everyone else should live.
The great lessons of the 20th century were that when regimes ruled by this ideology are created to suppress individual rights and the free market, the result is inherently dictatorial, and economic ruin soon follows. It’s not just that, for all of its problems, capitalism is the only sure path to prosperity and freedom. During the course of the last century, the cumulative death toll of Communist regimes, which always described themselves as socialist, reached 100 million — slaughtered in famines, purges and gulags. When individual freedom is sacrificed on the altar of utopian ideology, blood always flows.
That socialism is now making a comeback shows how fleeting historical memory is. But the problem with utopian thinking is that it involves more than discredited economic theories. Today’s socialists are also influenced by intersectional theory that identifies all causes associated with minorities or Third World peoples as part of a general struggle against capitalism. Both Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez accused Israel of atrocities, embracing lies spread by Hamas apologists during the weekly “return marches” that started this spring, when Israel’s border with Gaza was assaulted by Palestinian rioters armed with rocks, Molotov cocktails, and explosives.
In a PBS “Firing Line” interview after her victory, Ocasio-Cortez was asked to account for her claim that Israel had conducted a “massacre.” Her response was incoherent. Though at one point she said she supported Israel’s right to exist and a two-state solution, she also said she opposed the “occupation of Palestine.” When challenged by interviewer Margaret Hoover to explain what she meant, Ocasio-Cortez was flustered, saying she wasn’t an “expert on geopolitics.”
Since then, Ocasio-Cortez has flip-flopped on the issue as she reacts to criticism from fellow leftists, who fear she is backing off her opposition to the Jewish state. Unfortunately, the people whose efforts she and Sanders supported by unfairly criticizing Israel do know what they mean by “occupation.” For those who took part in the marches, “return” means turning back the clock to 1948 and erasing the State of Israel, all of which they deem “occupied” territory. Yet that doesn’t stop contemporary “socialists” from seeking to undermine Israel’s right to defend itself.
Ocasio-Cortez won’t be the only member of Congress who thinks ignorance is no reason to avoid spouting off about serious issues, even when it means libeling Israel. Yet the real problem here is the consequence of the utopian impulse at the heart of her ideas.
The romance of socialism is irresistible to those who believe that outrage and good intentions are a substitute for sound economics or an understanding of conflicts in which murderous hate is disguised as a struggle against imperialism. But it’s a temptation that anyone with an understanding of history should avoid.
If Ocasio-Cortez and those who follow in her footsteps are the future of the Democratic Party, it bodes ill for the United States, Israel, and most certainly, for the Democrats.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS.